What our cricketing greats did not say



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by Rajeewa Jayaweera

The proposal for a multi-million-dollar cricket stadium in Homagama, proposed by Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), was temporarily shelved by a Prime Ministerial directive.


It all began when Minister Bandula Gunawardane made a public announcement. Homagama being his electorate, he probably considered the project a useful vote-catching gimmick for the forthcoming parliamentary election.


The initial projected cost for the floodlit stadium with a 40,000-seater capacity amounts to US 40 million. The complex would include a natural turf wicket playing field, indoor nets, changing rooms, swimming pool, gym and a rehabilitation center, office space, and many other facilities. It would also include a VVIP box, an absolute must in this country, may it be in stadiums, theatres, or even aircraft. Funding would be by way of a bank loan to be repaid by SLC over 15 years from its earnings.


SLC justified the project, still at the tender stage, based on its necessity to support bids for hosting international cricket tournaments such as the World Cup. However, Roshan Mahanama, a member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) elite panel of Match Referees and having officiated in many World Cup matches the world over debunked this claim.


Minister Gunawardane’s announcement drew immediate fire from two former cricketing greats Roshan Mahanama and Mahela Jayawardena.


Mahanama, in a newspaper comment, stated the following. "It is an utter joke to spend millions on a new cricket stadium when not only cricket, but the entire country is going through such difficult times."


Jayawardena tweeted, "we don't even play enough international cricket or domestic first-class cricket in the existing stadiums we have … Do we need another one?"


The print media and a swell of criticism from the public prompted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to summon a meeting of several former well-known players, politicians including some former Sports Ministers and Presidents of SLC besides current officer bearers of the cricket governing body.


Sidath Wettimuny was the first Sri Lankan test centurion (157 in Faisalabad in 1982) and the first Sri Lankan to score a century at Lord's (190 in 1984). He has also been a member of eight out of 10 Interim Committees. The organizers, in their wisdom, excluded him from the list of those invited to attend.


Besides Mahanama and Jayawardena, other past and present cricketers in attendance were Kumar Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya, and Lasith Malinga.


The cricketing greats were unanimous in their disapproval of the project. Allowed to speak individually, what was stated by each of them is in the public domain. They were emphatic in their views; another cricket stadium was not a priority. The country's stadiums were massively underutilized. They opined that the most critical area for development was school cricket infrastructure, considered the nursery for breeding national players. According to them, school cricket’s neglect spans over a 15 to 20 years period. Many schools did not have cricket grounds nor turf wickets. Also highlighted was the lack of a national plan to develop the sport.


The Prime Minister directed SLC to suspend the project at the end of the meeting. To say the least, proposing such a project at present times when even cash strapped government servants are requested to voluntarily contribute to the national economy by forgoing part of their emoluments is being grossly insensitive.


The inputs of the former cricketers were invaluable in arriving at the Prime Minister’s decision. What other positives will stem from their initiative is to be seen.


According to Wikipedia, Sri Lanka’s list of international cricket grounds and respective seating capacity is as follows. Dambulla (16,800), Galle (35,000), Pallekele (35,000), R.Premadasa (35,000), and Sooriyawewa (34,300). Asgiriya, CCC, P.Sara Oval, SSC, and Tyron Fernando Stadium are the smaller venues with a capacity of 15,000 or less.


The last two cricket stadiums, constructed in 2000 and 2010, are considered white elephants.


The Rangiri Dambulla International Cricket Ground in Dambulla, a 16,800-seater floodlit stadium, was constructed in 167 days and inaugurated in March 2001. Whereas the original estimated Project Cost was Rs 60 million, the final bill topped Rs 600 million, a 100% cost overshoot. The five-member Hemantha Warnakulasuriya investigation committee found the lease agreement for the stadium’s block of land invalid. Many other financial improprieties came to light during the inquiry. Since its inception, the venue has hosted a total of 28 matches, the last being in 2010.


The 34,300-seater Sooriyawewa International Cricket Stadium a.k.a. Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota opened its doors in 2011. Whereas COPE was informed that Rs 5.8 billion was the value of work carried out, a valuation ordered by the parliamentary select committee revealed a sum of Rs 2 billion. After COPE’s investigation, Sri Lanka Ports Authority eventually paid Rs 3.95 billion to the Contractor after obtaining a bank loan on a Treasury Guarantee. The venue has not hosted a single match during the last three years.


Paradoxically, many of those responsible for proposing, promoting, approving, and financially benefitting from these two white elephant projects were seated right there at the meeting venue. At least one of them hailing from a gaming family has been responsible for many of the ills confronting the game of cricket today.


The moment a project, tender or contract is placed on the table, dollar commission bells start ringing in the heads of politicians and their henchmen, regardless of their denomination. Many government servants too play a supportive role with some receiving a share of the spoils.


The country has a history of ignoring projects critical to the nation and its people while dumping money into unwanted projects.


The cricketing greats spoke of many schools without grounds and turf wickets. In terms of priority, drinking water, and sanitation facilities must take precedence, especially for girls. In 2016, 1,200 out of a total of 10,000 schools reported the non-availability of drinking water facilities leading to poor sanitation and hygiene facilities. Water Aid did a report, and UNICEF in Sri Lanka highlighted the toilet to schoolgirl ratio in Sri Lanka is 1:66. The World Health Organization standard is 1:25 (WaterAid, 2017). That does not include schools with toilets but without a regular supply of water preventing children, especially girls, from using them.


Besides white elephant cricket stadiums, we also had a white elephant airline and still have such an airport in the country.


The State-owned Mihin Lanka took to the skies in 2007 and shut down operations in March 2016. According to a Daily FT report published in November 2016, accumulated losses amounted to Rs 17.27 billion. This airline was formed in addition to the national carrier SriLankan Airlines already making billions of rupees in losses annually.


The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA), located 250 km from Colombo, was constructed at the cost of USD 209 million and commissioned in March 2013. It has since earned the unenviable distinction of the World’s Emptiest Airport. Despite SriLanka Airlines operating a few international flights via MRIA complying with a government directive incurring further losses, at no point in time did this airport ever service a dozen flights a week. This writer attended the first Steering Committee meeting sometime in 2008 as one of two locals representing major foreign airlines. During my turn to speak, I queried, would not funds be better spent upgrading the existing airport. The committee Chairman, a very average ministerial Secretary said the committee's remit was not to evaluate between having one or two airports but to develop plans for the second airport in Mattala. I recollect the other foreign airline representative asking me, "Machang, do you have a death wish" at the end of the meeting.


The former cricketers argued that spending USD 40 million on providing grounds, turf wickets, and other facilities developing school cricket for outstation schools was a preferable option.


Unfortunately, our leaders did not consider deploying funds spent on Dambulla and Suriyawewa stadiums, Mihin Air, and MRIA in developing outstation schools.


The results of providing schools with water connections, toilets, and sanitary facilities, better-equipped classrooms besides science, language, and computer laboratories, would have been gratifying. It would also have been an investment in the future.


The recent announcement may have been only a trial weather balloon to gauge public opinion with a general election looming in the not too distant future. The Prime Ministerial directive is for the suspension rather than the abandonment of the project.


A USD 40 million project with the possibility of cost overshoots and commission opportunities is too attractive a venture for our politicians to abandon permanently.


PS


Since my piece, last Sunday titled "Lest we forget," I received several responses stating, there were several housing projects for wounded war veterans. The MoD Seva Vanitha outfit, ‘Api Venuwen Api’ program, and several Sri Lankan NGOs in the USA, the UK, Australia, etc. organized and voluntarily funded such projects. My reference was to the lack of a government-sponsored and guaranteed project for the construction of a fixed number of housing units each year (i.e., 5,000 units) with an allocation in the national budget through an Act of Parliament to ensure continuity regardless of partisan politics. The required 2/3 majority in Parliament to pass such legislation was at hand. Such a project if commenced by 2010 would have resulted in the completion of nearly 50,000 units by now. It would have provided housing for a majority of the disabled.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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